To Washington and Lee Board of Trustees;
Over the summer, the Board of Trustees announced its intention to form a “committee” to conduct a “deep and detailed review of our symbols and our name with the intention of securing the brightest possible future for this institution.” My disappointment, as a current student, is deep. As well-intentioned as this may seem, I cannot help but feel that we have been here before; researching and talking, talking and researching and presenting and investigating and surveying and “dialoguing.” As an English major, I’m utilizing my context clues to suggest yet another synonym: stalling.
What I hope the administration, and especially the board of trustees, realizes, is that making committed changes on campus will not create more opportunities, acclaim, or success for W&L, but rather reduce them. Changing the name of Washington and Lee University will doubtless incite backlash, backlash from the same group that organizes Robert E. Lee day during the university’s MLK week, from donors and alumni who maintain that enrolling women was a mistake, from the Klu Klux Klan who semi-regularly intimidates the residents of Lexington and the university. The same crowds who formed The General’s Redoubt will likely donate less money if more actions on the Committee for Institutional History’s recommendations are taken. But our focus cannot be financial gain, nor social capital in the form of public approval. Such short-sightedness will assuredly lead us away from where we want to be as an institution. The incentive to change the name cannot be found in economics, but only in ethics. Washington and Lee benefits from these systems of oppression, and when they are silent towards our community, it is precisely this implicit approval that allows our school to monetarily flourish as it has, and that allows those very systems to continue to operate. Conversely, divesting from these systems and refusing to accept the wealth and safety accrued on racist precepts will not help the university comfortably float along in the same way it has been. Our “brightest possible future,” I can assure you, in no way includes this support. We have a moral imperative to deny such poisoned approval.
The decision-makers for this university have a choice. Will you choose, money, safety, comfort, or will you choose to do the bold thing, the considerate thing, the right thing, and establish a new set of values that shines through our actions and commitments to all residents? What absolutely cannot go on is a lukewarm approach to this issue. The diversity statistics and committees are perhaps a step forward, but I am concerned about what is never acknowledged by the president or the admissions office, such as the retention rates of those very students: how many wish to leave, but feel trapped because of the scholarships they are offered? W&L is coercing tokenism out of its students of color. But don’t take my word for it. Recently, an Instagram account called “Dear W&L” was formed that publishes anonymous stories of serious aggression towards Black students, Latinx students, Asian students, and any other student of color that tries to take advantages of the opportunities presented on campus. They should be required reading for those desiring to steer our community into a truly mindful future. These stories are the qualitative data points through which our true “success” as a center of learning can be charted, and let me say, the numbers don’t look good. The accounts entail the grim experiences of whose lives and existence create an empty absolution for this university. We benefit, and they suffer. Something must be done. If this is a vague request, please refer again to the recommendations. They are well-researched and have completed all the hard work for us. Listen to your own students. Listen to your own faculty. Listen to your own community in Lexington and Rockbridge County, who have as of right now renamed public historic landmarks to better reflect the ethos of the community. Out of respect for your own hosts, listen. We need to stand by our commitments with action, right now.
Changing our title is, indeed, a purely symbolic gesture. This is a fact. Its alteration without substantial social change would be insufficient. However, changing the name, if continually backed, comes to represent an open, public contract between our community and the rest of the world that we are resolute in moving on from, to be perfectly frank, a dangerous and bloody history that unnecessarily binds us to outdated beliefs. By doing so, we hold ourselves accountable towards peers in higher education, towards the Lexington community, and towards every prospective student. We have a responsibility to hear and respond to the cries of those around us, and as a supposed force for the betterment of society, we have a duty to set those claims of injustice before all other guiding principles, even—especially-- before our own sense of self-preservation. Washington and Lee remains in a position of great influence right now. Our actions act as a microcosm for the nation’s untreated and open wounds. By taking a stand that is bold and unreserved, we lead the way for what antiracism, reparations, and allyship truly looks like. We have a chance to make a serious change. Do not waste it.
Looking back, it seems appropriate, though perhaps in a twisted way, that the Charlottesville riots in 2017 were what ushered in my collegiate journey. I find it no coincidence that this happened in our metaphorical backyard. If the Board of Trustees do not find this fact-- along with the largest civil rights movement in the history of the world-- indicative of a strong necessity for immediate and confident action, then they should not be the ones representing the student body and our values to the rest of the world. These values simply do not match up. I recognize and appreciate the committees, investigations, and considerations that the university is trying to bring to life on campus. I understand and agree that making this decision thoughtfully and intentionally is of the utmost importance. However, the time for committees is over. I think the time has never been more right to make a more tangible and public move towards renovating the symbols and language we use to define our institutional ethics and goals. There is no more new information to found or discussed, there is only a question of whether what has been recommended will be implemented or not. If not, then this “prestigious” institution will sink deliberately and rightfully into its coveted past, swallowed whole by the obscurity it worships in itself. I have absolutely no desire to see this happen. However, if no real stance is taken against the years of oppression and hate that this school has been witness and accomplice to, then I am content to let the axe fall where it may. Don’t wait.
Class of 2021